Drought Watch: Crises as Catalyst for Policy Change
Jeffrey Mount, Ellen Hanak September 16, 2014

This is part of a continuing series on the impact of the drought.

Today Governor Brown signed three bills that require portions of the state to start managing groundwater sustainably. These bills are historic. Until today, California was the only western state that did not regulate groundwater, typically the source of more than one-third of the state’s supply, and much more during dry years.

Why, after a century of failing to address much-needed reform, has the state finally acted on this problem? It’s the drought.

The problem of groundwater overuse is nothing new in California. Calls for reform began as far back as the early 1900s, when severe excess pumping in many groundwater basins began to cause problems. Chronic overdraft—taking more out of the ground than nature puts back in—has left many basins severely depleted.

When the current drought arrived and communities and farms turned to groundwater to make up for shortages in surface water supply, a century of neglect—the hydrologic equivalent of deficit spending—caught up with California. The groundwater that, managed well, should have been cheap and plentiful, became expensive and scarce, leading to an economic and social crisis. The well-publicized effects of unsustainable pumping include sinking ground, dry wells, crumbling canals and roads, intense competition to drill deeper (and more costly) wells, the fallowing of more than 410,000 acres of farmland, and losses of more than $2 billion in farm revenues and more than 17,000 farm-related jobs. These factors combined to create pressure to tackle what had been, up to now, off limits to reform.

In our 2011 book, Managing California’s Water: From Conflict to Reconciliation, we note that significant advances in state water policy are often tied to droughts and floods, along with the inevitable lawsuits that follow. Extreme events like the current drought reveal fundamental weaknesses in California’s water management policies and practices. Perhaps more importantly, they create pressure on government to respond.

This is the silver lining of water crises in California: they are often the way we get things done. (The comprehensive reform of flood management enacted in 2007 was spurred on by the graphic images of Hurricane Katrina two years earlier, for example.) Indeed, one strategy for advancing water management reform is to plan and prepare for the inevitable, and then take advantage of a crisis to push ahead on needed reforms.

This year’s groundwater package is indeed historic, but California still has a long way to go in improving the way it manages water. With our changing climate, we should expect more frequent droughts and floods (and lawsuits)—so there will be no shortage of opportunities to tackle other problems in the future.

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